People without a State: The Struggle for Kurdistan

Isolation has long defined the Kurds, whose ancestral homeland is mountainous southeast Anatolia in what is now Turkey. Isolation helps them survive for thousands of years, while other peoples – Phrygians, Hittites, Lydians – fade from history’s pages.

Today there are an estimated 25 million to 40 million Kurds, mostly Muslim, about half in Turkey and most of the others in Iran, Iraq and Syria. They are arguably the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent state that, for many Kurds, is in painful contrast to their former glory and is a source of frustration and anger.

Kurdish tribes have lived in Anatolia since at least 1,000 B.C., twenty centuries before the first Turks arrive there. Ancient historians describe them as a people not to be trifled with. Xenophon, the fourth-century B.C. Greek warrior and chronicler, writes that they “lived in the mountains and were very warlike.”

The peak of Kurdish power comes in the 12th century, under their greatest leader, Salah-ad-Din, whom we mostly call Saladin. While building a vast empire that includes much of present-day Syria, Iraq and Egypt, Saladin recaptures many cities, including Jerusalem that had been conquered by the crusaders.

Saladin founds the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt and Syria. He is a renowned leader for his strategy against the Crusaders and his honourable mercy to them.

Saladin dies of a fever on March 4, 1193. Since Saladin has given most of his money away for charity, they find there is not enough to pay for his funeral. But he is buried in a magnificent mausoleum in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

By the 14th century there is an epic poem in Europe about his exploits, and Dante includes him among the virtuous ‘pagan’ souls in Limbo.

René Grousset, historian, author of ‘History of the Crusades’ (1934-1936) and ‘The Empire of the Steppes, a History of Central Asia’ (1939) writes of him: “It is equally true that his generosity, his piety, devoid of fanaticism, that flower of liberality and courtesy which had been the model of our old chroniclers, won him no less popularity in Frankish Syria than in the lands of Islam….”

The name Salah-ad-Din means ‘Light of the Faith, ‘Righteousness of the Faith’ or ‘Weapon of the Faith’, and through the ages Saladin has been an inspiration for many of us.

In the Footsteps of Ehmede Xani

The decline gives way to Ottoman and Persian power, which reaches new heights in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Kurds rebel and suffer terribly. Many are slaughtered. More are forcibly moved to outlying regions, including present-day Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, where rulers thought they would be less threatening.
Ehmede Xani, a pioneer of Kurdish literature, is one of the first to eloquently address the serious issues that haunt the Kurdish as a nation to this very day – the interdependent phenomena of oppression and division. In the late 17th century, as today, an independent Kurdistan exists only as a dream.

Long before the emergence of the myriad of political groups claiming to work for the Kurdish people, Xani addresses this issue in a very direct way, bemoaning the current state of affairs and castigating his own people for failing to unite in the his poem “Derd û Kulê me Kurda” (“The Afflictions and Pain of us, the Kurds”):

Civamerî û cavfireyî û himmet
Miranî, merxasî, hem ji xirat…
Ji ber ve yeke ye ku ew tim ne li hev in
Tim ji hev cuda ne u tim li dije hev in…
Hevgirtin u yekitiya me hebuna eger
U em hemî li pey hev biçuma eger
Rom û Ereb û Ecem bi temamî
Hemîyan de ji ma ra bikira xulamî

It is the spirit of independence and exalted benevolence,
That has become the obstacle to
Shouldering the burden of obligations;
Always without unity it is because of
This divided and pinched against one another they stand.
If we had unity amongst ourselves,
If we all together obeyed one another,
The Turks and Arabs and Persians
Will all together be in our servitude.

In order to survive and maintain Kurdish national identity and unity, Ehmede Xani sees the necessity of the creation of an independent state. Centuries after he first expresses his ideas, it seems that the sad reality of the present-day Middle East only confirms his worst fears.

From the time of Ehmede Xani to today, examples of Kurds being used against one another to destroy any semblance of a strong, united Kurdish national movement abound, whether we study the Hamidiye Cavalry of the Ottoman Empire, or the Fursan of the Anfal, or the village guards still being used in Turkey today. Today, even after the Kurds have gained some measure of power in the Middle East, Ahmede Xani’s story and message are very relevant to the Kurdish nation and this would undoubtedly disappoint the late poet and scholar if he were alive to see it.

Today, centuries after Ehmede Xani, deliberate policies of full scale assimilation and oppression practiced for decades by the states that were born with the rise of modern nationalism in Mesopotamia and Anatolia have divided and wounded the Kurdish nation. Xani’s prescient words are no longer a warning, but a narrative of the tragedy that has befallen the Kurdish nation.

For some details: Seyhmus Yuksekkaya, University of Massachusetts-Boston. Kurdish Herald Vol. 2 Issue 1, February 2010.

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